Author: Maya Flax (University of West London)
Given the changing demographics of the student body on university campuses, there has been a shift in pedagogical approach in Higher Education. Drawing on the author’s own experiences, two strategies of good practice are proposed in order to ensure student success. The first is to draw on examples in explaining theoretical concepts. The second is the importance of building rapport with the students, and creating a space for building personal connections. Attempting to provide teaching excellence will go some way towards mediating the hurdles students face along the way to completing their degree.
Keywords: Teaching excellence, teaching strategies, example-oriented, building rapport
How to Cite: Flax, M. (2023) “Strategies for enhancing teaching excellence: Providing real-world examples and building rapport”, New Vistas. 9(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.36828/newvistas.227
There has been an immense shift in pedagogical approaches in Higher Education over the last few decades, with a much greater focus on teaching excellence, particularly in recent years (Bartram et al., 2018). Evidenced-based strategies to achieve teaching excellence have been utilised, and have greatly benefited some lecturers and their respective students (Bartram et. al, 2018). However, students’ ratings in Module Evaluations Surveys can also be used as a primary gauge for evaluating the quality of teaching. This feedback helps guide changes and serves to inform all academics aspiring to achieve higher student ratings. This article will suggest two other strategies which can be implemented in order to achieve teaching excellence and thereby strengthen student engagement.
Old-style teaching is for the most part no longer relevant and applicable in today’s classroom. Several decades ago, many lectures would be mechanical and sterile, read directly from teaching notes, in the most monotonous of voices, devoid of any PowerPoint slides, videos, visual links or auditory tools (Ayers, 2001). The lecturer would keep the students at arm’s length, ensuring that there is a sense of authority and adopt a divisive tone between the lecturer and the students, reinforcing the hierarchical system. Compare and contrast this with the pedagogic approach in Higher Education today, whereby almost all the senses are activated and all types of wisdom are instigated in order to enhance engagement. Many lecturers use various strategies for engagement, from sharing a clear narrative, to being humorous, to calling students by their first names, to using all available technological tools (Frisby and Munoz, 2021). Many lecturers become ‘energy creators’ (Brighouse and Woods, 1999, p.84) who through their sparkling manner, enthusiasm and commitment, deliver a positive experience for students. However, teaching excellence has not been achieved by all academics, and whilst various evidenced-based strategies for improvement have been suggested, these have not always been implemented.
The importance of shifting our teaching approach is multidimensional. It lies in the eroding capacity of students to focus, linked to the rise in endless media outlets (Hari, 2022). It lies in the evolving society with its rapid technological developments which the classroom needs to keep in sync (Hari, 2022). Or perhaps it lies with the evolving make-up of the student body, moving away from the typical white student from a wealthy socio-economic background to the broader spectrum of students embodied in the demographics of many University campuses.
The most recent UWL Annual Report on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (UWL 2021) reflected that nearly half of our students are below the income threshold, with 49% coming from the most deprived areas, and its multicultural diversity is pronounced (57% of students are from BAME backgrounds, 6% from a mixed background, 5% from other ethnic backgrounds). The learning experience cannot remain static if the demographic of students has evolved. The model once adopted has now become archaic and cannot merely be rehashed. It is no longer functional for our respective audience. This atypical student body therefore necessitates a different and innovative approach to teaching which can encompass diversity. It becomes paramount to be able to gauge our students, their background, their economic circumstances and to be fully cognisant that for most, completing a first degree is a privilege unbeknown to other members of their family. It creates a real sense of pride as well as ongoing challenges, entailing simultaneously juggling work as well as familial responsibilities, together with ever burgeoning and enticing social media platforms.
As lecturers, we need to ask ourselves what strategies we can put in place to ensure our students’ success. Drawing on our own personal experiences and previous literature (Su and Wood, 2012; Ayers, 2012, Choubey, 2011; Frisby et al., 2015), this article shares two practical suggestions for good practice. Good practice in this context is defined as providing a platform for learning excellence, whereas The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education defines good practice as that which makes a positive contribution, adding value to the provision of a student’s learning experience which is worthy of wider dissemination. In sharing good practice, the first suggestion, aligned to Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (1978), is the importance of drawing on examples to explain rather abstract theoretical concepts (Ayers, 2001). Providing examples is a tool for simplifying complex notions. Students consider that a good lecturer has the ability to relate the academic theories to real-world examples (Su and Wood, 2012). The lecture should contain content supplemented with ‘real world examples, illustrations and applications’ and examples should furthermore be ‘multicultural and non-gender specific’ (Ayers, 2012, p.96). Examples need to be ‘easy to understand and should not include advanced concepts’ (Choubey, 2011, p.205). A few generations ago, students were assumed to understand these abstract theoretical concepts, or otherwise they would have to take ownership over grasping the material. Today, the importance of clarifying the content by providing numerous examples cannot be emphasised enough.
Students who feel secure in having understood the material start to trust the teaching process. It builds their confidence about the material and gives them a sense of belonging. This in turn contributes to the student’s overall wellbeing, levels of engagement and ultimately their success (Gopalan and Brady, 2020). Given the increase in mental health issues since the Covid-19 pandemic (Gogoi et al., 2022), more care needs to be taken in ensuring that students feel connected at the most fundamental level. This can be achieved through presenting a clear narrative and ensuring that students fully capture the depth and breadth of the lecture.
As a Criminology lecturer who delivers the module Explaining Criminal Behaviour , a new theory is covered on a weekly basis. This could so easily become a monotonous and dull module. However, by illustrating and drawing on real world examples to deliver the narrative, students fully succeed in understanding the material and learning in considerable depth. By way of example, Ceasre Becarria (1738-1794), who was very concerned with the way punishments were being applied in 18 th century France, protested against the Criminal Justice policies which were in place, and developed three key concepts of punishment: punishment needs to be certain, swift and proportionate to the harm caused (Paolucci, 1764/1963). In relaying these three concepts of punishment to the students, a lecturer could coldly verbalise what these three concepts entail and expect students merely to retain the information.
However, by drawing upon examples, the dynamics in the lecture shifts and it becomes a shared experience between students and lecturer. Therefore, the lecturer could describe these three concepts of punishment by drawing on examples. The lecturer could describe an incident in a shop where a four-year-old child stole a sweet under the eyes of the mother. On entering the car, the child said to the mother that she had received the sweet from the shopkeeper. Knowing that there was no possibility of this occurring (as the child was beside the mother throughout), the mother decided, in no uncertain terms, to teach the child that punishment is both certain and swift (the first two dimensions of punishment developed by Beccaria). The mother said to the child that instead of going home for supper, they will go back inside the shop and return the sweet to the manager who was sitting in the back office. The child resisted and the mother had to act assertively in taking the child into the manager’s office. Upon entering the manager’s office, the child faced the humiliation of admitting that she had stolen the sweet. At this point, the child learnt that punishment was both certain (there was no wavering as to whether they would drive off or face punishment) as well as swift (within minutes, the entire episode was over).
The third principle of punishment, namely proportionality, could be relayed using the case of Michael Faye in Singapore (Ministry of Home Affairs, 1994). Faye was severely punished for causing some criminal damage in Singapore, a minor offence which would have led to a conditional discharge or a small fine if committed in the UK. In Singapore however, Faye was sentenced to four months imprisonment and six lashes of the cane before receiving immediate deportation back to the United States. The lashes of the cane have been described as barbaric and inhuman by critiques of punishment in Singapore (Stone, 1994). The cane is a bamboo stick and the accused is whipped across his lower back until he becomes unconscious. A doctor is present in the room to revive the accused so that he can be fully alert in receiving the final lashes. The case had spread widely in the media and the then American president, President Bill Clinton, pleaded for clemency from the Singapore prime minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew to waive the punishment of lashes. It was agreed that instead of receiving the six lashes, Michael Faye would be subjected to only four lashes. Singapore is known to be one of the most punitive countries, whereby its laws are unquestionably enforced (Silverstein, 2008). Its laws are described as non-proportionate, with the punishment not fitting the crime. Drawing on this example in explaining the concept of proportionality, or lack thereof, simplified the entire concept for the students. These two examples allowed students to preserve the three concepts of punishment as their framework and contextualisation of their educational experience. By making practical sense of the concept of punishment using these examples, the content is no longer abstract.
Clarity in sharing the content of the presentation by drawing upon examples, is the first step to promoting positive student outcomes in the lectures. The second practical suggestion in promoting success among our students is building rapport with them (Frisby et al., 2015; Frisby and Martin, 2008). Developing meaningful connections is an essential human need (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). Falherty (2021) highlights that students are becoming increasingly more dependent on building social connections with members of staff. It is therefore paramount to bear in mind this level of dependence by the student, and to reflect on ways in which we can best serve the needs of our students. Rapport has been defined by Frisby and Martin (2010, p.47) as ‘an overall feeling between two people encompassing a mutual, trusting and pro-social bond’.
According to Frisby and Myers (2008), rapport entails both enjoyable interactions (feeling positive and liked) as well as personal connection (sensing a strong bond or affiliation). Research has shown that students who have a sense of rapport with their lecturers are much more likely to engage in class, be motivated and approach the learning experience more positively (Frisby et al, 2015; Frisby and Martin, 2008). Anxiety levels are also observed to diminish when participation in class increases (Sidelinger et al., 2016).
Demonstrating interest in our students, making a conscious effort to remember and call them by their first names, despite it being a large cohort of students, remembering something which they shared in lectures and building upon that in the following weeks, provides them with a sense of acknowledgement and makes the learning experience much more personable. This approach communicates to the students that they are ‘endorsed, recognised and acknowledged as valuable, significant individuals’ (Ellis, 2000, p.266) which in turn enhances rapport. It encourages openness, approachability and allows for connection in a palatable manner.
Being part of the learning journey for our students can be tremendously rewarding for both lecturer and student. For most of our students, completing a degree is not easy, a process filled with various challenges along the way. By adopting the two strategies suggested, teaching excellence can be enhanced. Using real world examples promotes greater student understanding, with theoretical concepts no longer being perceived as being abstract, and building greater rapport with students will enhance their engagement. Implementing these strategies will go some way in overcoming the hurdles students face in the process of completing their degree. By committing to teaching excellence, rather than being mechanical and sterile, we infuse the classroom with purpose. In understanding the teaching environment, lecturers can invite students to actively share with them the pursuit of knowledge.
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About the author:
Dr Maya Flax is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Human and Social Sciences, University of West London.